Friday, November 27th, 2020

Can Something Be Too Much for G-d to Ask?

October 14, 2009 by  
Filed under Halakha, Philosophy

by Aryeh Klapper

Can Something Be Too Much for G-d to Ask?

Are there limits to what G-d can require of human beings? At first glance the answers seem obvious – we are told to love G-d with all our “nefesh”, and normative Halakhah understands this as imposing an obligation on all Jews to surrender their lives for the sake of religion. If G-d can demand our lives, it should follow kal vachomer that he can ask anything else, and in any case the same verse creates an unlimited financial obligation as well.

This may seem a very abstract, how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin type question. But it has a crucial practical corollary, namely: can one demonstrate that a potential halakhic conclusion is in error because it would require too much of us? The argument above indicates that the answer is no.

The difference between having an excuse and being excused

A distinguished colleague of mine suggests that a counterargument can be developed from Rambam’s position that one who fails to fufill a halakhic obligation to die rather than transgress is nonetheless not punished for the transgression. Rambam declares such a person to be “ones”, acting under compulsion, although the applicability of that category is not obvious – no other person or circumstance is preventing one from fulfilling the obligation to be mekadesh shem shomayim and die. Rather, it seems that Rambam held that the obligation in and of itself is defintionally ones, in other words too much to expect.

I acknowledge that analysis, and indeed, many years ago I developed a full shiur on the issue of “internal ones”, which you can find here. But I think that there is a difference between saying that G-d cannot require us to do something and saying that He cannot hold us responsible for failing to do so. One formulation of that difference is that in the latter case there is no moral problem with making the demand, whereas in the former case there would be. As an analogy: It is likely unreasonable for me to expect my high school students to give maximum intellectual effort every moment of every class, and I would be unjust if I penalized someone for a having a ten minute bout of ninety eight percent attentiveness. But it is not wrong of me to establish that as a standard. By contrast, it would be unjust of me to assign them so much homework that they would be unable to do work for other classes, or have time to spend with family and friends – even if I don’t punish them for not completing it.

Theological Implications: Broken Covenant Theology

This distinction has important theological implications in at least two areas.1 First, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg has argued that G-d broke His covenant with the Jewish People at Auschwitz, and as a result the Jews are no longer obligated to observe it either (although they may choose to reobligate themselves, and that choice is supremely valorized). My interest here is not to discuss whether this argument is acceptable, compelling, or neither; rather, to point out that Greenberg’s conclusion seems to be normative Halakhah in America, where the standard position (based on R. Moshe Feinstein inter alia, although I contend not on Chazon Ish to YD 1:1 as commonly stated) is that everyone is a tinok shenishbah at least with regard to ritual. Thus there is no halakhic accountability in America for nonobservance. Any rejection of Greenberg’s theology must therefore distinguish between lack of accountability and lack of obligation.

Second, my dear friend and colleague Rabbi David Jaffe points out that, for those who see the halakhic prohibition against mishkav zahar as an unreasonable expectation with regard to men who self-understand as homosexual, this issue has significant impact on whether solutions utilizing ones will be considered sufficient. If one conflates ones with lack of obligation, this approach will likely suffice, but if one distinguishes them, the issues of how G-d could require this to begin with, or of whether such men should be asked to struggle against what they understand to be an inherent element of their selves, remain. Another formulation: the ones approach will work for those who seek to meliorate the effects of this halakhah, but not for those who seek to justify it.

So I do not think that cases of ones can help us determine whether there are things that G-d can’t require of us. I do, however, think that a variety of Talmudic phrases do indicate that such limits exist. They include:

a. אין הקדוש ברוך הוא בא בטירוניא עם בריותיו = The Holy One Who is blessed does not approach His creatures tyrannically (Avodah Zarah 3a)

b. אם כן, לא שבקת חיי לברייתא = if so, you would not leave a way for any creature to live!? (Bava Kamma 91b)

c. אם כן, לא הנחת בת לאברהם אבינו יושבת תחת בעלה = if so, you would leave no daughter of our forefather Abraham remaining with her husband!? (Ketubot 72a, Gittin 89b)

d. לא נתנה תורה למלאכי השרת= the Torah was not given to the Ministering Angels!? (Berakhot 25b, Yoma 30a, Kiddushin 54a, Meilah 14b).

Each of these requires rigorous analysis, both of their meaning in original context and of their reception history, to determine their relevance and arrive to the extent possible at precise formulations of these apparent a priori limits on Halakhah, and this is far from a comprehensive list. But I think that the list suffices to establish the strong probability that some formulation of some limits will emerge from a complete treatment.

I want to point out in conclusion that my argument depends on either or both of a. the recognition that there are demands harder than giving up one’s life b. the recognition that having the right to demand everything in extraordinary circumstances does not imply a parallel right in ordinary circumstances. Overall, my contention is that poskim cannot hide behind a claim of formal plausibility when accused of producing a halakhah that makes unreasonable demands; they must rather argue that the demands are reasonable.

  1. For lamdanim, the halakhic nafka mina should be clear – can someone who is exempt on ones grounds fulfill someone else’s obligation vicariously?  And of course even a tinok shenishbah brings one sacrificial offering to atone for all his transgressions. []
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